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Lawmakers set to take up funding bill for Indian Country programs

Filed Under: Education | Health | National | Politics | Federal Recognition | Trust
More on: 114th, appropriations, betty mccollum, bia, bie, carcieri, contract support costs, democrats, fy2017, h.r.5538, house, icwa, ihs, land-into-trust, nagpra, part 83, republicans, supreme court, white house
     
   

A crowd enters the Pueblo Pavilion at Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico for commencement ceremonies on May 26, 2016. The school is part of the Bureau of Indian Education system and the agency would see a boost under the fiscal year 2017 Interior appropriations bill. Photo from Facebook

Republican leaders in the House are hoping to pass a stand-alone bill to fund Indian Country programs, something that has hasn't happened in several years due to partisan bickering.

The House Rules Committee has set a deadline of Thursday for amendments to the fiscal year 2017 Interior appropriations bill, a key step before consideration on the floor. That means the $32.1 billion package, which includes about $8 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, could finally clear the chamber for the first time since 2009.

But key Democrats have already raised complaints about the funding levels. They say the bill doesn't include all of the increases that President Barack Obama sought for both agencies.

They are also concerned about a series of policy riders, not all of which are favorable to tribal interests. One bars the BIA from implementing the Part 83 reforms reforms to the federal acknowledgment process.

The reforms were written to address bottlenecks in the cumbersome and lengthy process. The most significant change allows the BIA to rely on the year 1900 as the starting date for evaluating evidence submitted by petitioning groups, which could help tribes whose time of contact with European settlers dates to the 1600s.

Some petitioners have indeed chosen to follow the revisions so blocking the rule will definitely have an impact. They would be required to move forward under a prior version of the Part 83 rules, an option that other groups have chosen to take.

A second rider is being called a "partial" fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. It would protect prior land-into-trust acquisitions from being challenged or litigated.

But since the provision only covers applications up to February 24, 2009, the date of the Supreme Court's ruling, Democrats have objected to it as being unfair. Tribes have been calling for a complete fix for years and a "clean" one that is not tied to gaming, participation by local and state governments or other issues.

"By only going up to those lands prior to February 24, 2009, we -- with the best of intentions -- would be creating further division that declares trust lands before a certain date are to be respected and others are left to be questioned," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the subcommittee that handles the Interior appropriations bill, said last month when the language was added to the bill.

The Obama administration also supports a "clean" fix and threatened a veto last year because the Interior funding bill did not address the Carcieri decision. The White House Office of Management and Budget has not issued a statement of administration policy on H.R.5538, the new package, so far but one is possible as the bill gets closer to consideration in the House.

Overall, the bill sets funding for BIA at $2.9 billion, an increase of $72 million from the fiscal year 2016 level. Obama, on the other hand, had requested an increase of about $137 million.

Within the BIA, the bill provides increases for road maintenance, social services, implementation of the
Indian Child Welfare Act, the Bureau of Indian Education and public safety and justice. Another $1 million would be directed to a "Cultural Items Unit" that will help the BIA investigate violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and thefts of tribal property, an issue of significant interest in Indian Country.

"Although domestic laws such as NAGPRA can be enforced to address the theft of tribal cultural items with both criminal and civil penalties, without active federal support, tribes are left only to do what they each can independently afford to do to stop the theft and sale of their cultural items," the House Appropriations Committee agreed wrote in a report accompanying H.R. 5538. "Therefore, the committee supports the BIA in developing the capacity to co-ordinate investigations of violations of NAGPRA and related law."

Discretionary funding for the IHS comes in at $5.1 billion, an increase of $271 million from the 2016 level. In contrast, Obama had sought an increase of about $377 million.

Within the IHS, the bill provides increases for operation of hospitals and clinics, dental health, purchased/referred care, and contract support costs. Another $6 million would be used to address "accreditation emergencies" like the kind seen in the troubled Great Plains Area.

Around this time last year, lawmakers were hoping to pass the Interior appropriations bill but Republican leaders pulled it to avoid an embarrasing debate about the Confederate flag. The BIA and the IHS ended up being included in an omnibus package that only included modest increases for the two agencies.

Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, Documents:
H.R.5538 on Congress.gov | H. Rept. 114-632

House Appropriations Committee Documents:
Press Release | PDF: Full Draft

FY2017 Interior Department Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief | Strengthening Tribal Nations and Insular Communities | Indian Affairs | DOI Fact Sheet

FY2017 Indian Health Service Budget Documents:
Budget Request | Budget Justification | HHS Budget In Brief

Related Stories:
Partial land-into-trust fix being watched by non-Indian interests (06/27)
Another land-into-trust fix reportedly being drafted in the Senate (06/24)
A 'partial' land-into-trust fix added to Interior appropriations bill (06/16)
Appropriations bill includes boosts for Indian Country programs (06/01)
Appropriations bill blocks new federal recognition regulation (05/24)
Bureau of Indian Affairs inches forward with school construction (04/11)
Leader of Bureau of Indian Affairs promises to inspect all schools (03/17)
Bureau of Indian Affairs slammed for safety conditions at schools (03/14)
House subcommittee to hear from tribes and tribal organizations (03/14)
House panel schedules hearing on Bureau of Indian Affairs budget (03/08)
New leader of Indian Health Service to testify about budget request (03/08)
Cronkite News: Navajo and Hopi relocation effort could finally end (03/01)
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to testify at House budget hearing (02/29)
Bureau of Reclamation emphasizes tribal water rights settlements (02/09)
President Obama seeks $2.9B budget for Bureau of Indian Affairs (02/09)
Rep. McCollum urges tribes to 'adopt' all members of Congress (01/14)

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